Life Coach vs. Therapist: What Are the Differences?

Life coach instructing client on tablet

Do you enjoy working with people? Are you seeking a career that would enable you to support and motivate others? If so, you could consider becoming a life coach. The job of a life coach is similar in some ways to that of a mental health therapist or psychologist. However, there are key differences between life coaches and therapists.

As you explore this career guide, note the differences in educational and licensing requirements between these two professions. Another main difference between life coaches and therapists is the focus of their sessions with clients. While both of these careers would enable you to help others, you may find yourself gravitating toward a role as a life coach due to the less stringent employment requirements.

Understanding the Terms: Life Coach vs. Therapist

A mental health therapist or psychologist is a healthcare professional who has been licensed by their state to provide psychotherapy services. Patients typically work with a psychologist on a long-term basis. They meet with their therapists regularly, working to resolve their mental health issues and overcome related challenges.

A life coach is not a healthcare professional, although those working in this role typically have an educational background in psychology, counseling or a related field. States do not require life coaches to be licensed or certified, although they can be. The purpose of life coaching sessions is to empower clients to identify their life’s goals and make progress toward them.

The Objectives of a Life Coach vs. Therapist

There are significant differences between the objectives of a life coach and those of therapist, as well as between the focus of their sessions with clients. A therapist focuses on patients’ feelings and thought patterns. Therapy enables patients to develop a greater understanding of how their past experiences and thought patterns influence their behaviors and emotions.

Whereas a therapist focuses on the reasons for of a patient’s behaviors and thought patterns, a life coach focuses on how their clients can overcome current problems. Life coaching may explore past experiences and emotional trauma to a limited extent. However, it will largely focus on how clients can change their current behaviors in order to build the lives they want for themselves.

It is also worth emphasizing that a mental health therapist or psychologist is trained and licensed to diagnose mental health disorders. These professionals frequently work with individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and similar challenges. Although therapists are not able to prescribe medications like psychiatrists can, they administer mental health treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

In contrast, a life coach does not have the ability or authority to diagnose a mental health disorder. Similarly, they are not able to administer treatments, such as psychotherapy. However, a life coach who believes that a client may be struggling with mental health issues can refer that person to a mental health therapist. A client may undergo both life coaching and therapy.

Past, Present and Future: The Orientation of Therapy vs. Coaching Sessions

Therapists often focus on their clients’ pasts. They explore issues such as how childhood trauma affects a patient’s current mental health. A therapist helps clients to understand the problems in their pasts and learn how to heal from them in order to create a healthier present.

By contrast, life coaches do not typically encourage clients to explore the past at length. They focus on identifying what clients can do in the present in order to reach their goals. This is a future-oriented form of coaching that emphasizes progressing toward objectives.

A Typical Session With a Mental Health Therapist

Every therapy session proceeds a little differently, as each is customized to the patient’s unique needs. In addition, mental health therapists conduct sessions according to their own preferences. In general, however, the first therapy session primarily focuses on introductory matters.

Patients can expect to fill out health forms and provide basic background information. The therapist may spend time explaining their own academic background and areas of specialization and may encourage patients to ask questions about their expertise. The remainder of the first session allows the therapist and patient to get better acquainted.

This may, for example, involve conversation about favorite movies and books, as well as light questions about the patient’s mental health concerns. Patients may be asked about their mental and physical health symptoms, professional life, home life and relationships. The first few therapy sessions are focused on building a rapport between therapist and patient.

During subsequent sessions, the therapist and patient begin to dive deeper into the patient’s conscious and subconscious mind. They explore issues such as childhood bullying or other forms of trauma, substance abuse, insomnia or anything else that might concern the patient. The therapist can administer psychotherapy treatments, such as client-centered therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychoanalytic therapy, all of which are designed to help the patient develop coping skills and overcome mental health challenges.

What Clients Can Expect During a Session With a Life Coach

Like mental health therapy, life coaching is intended to help and empower people. However, it achieves this goal in a different way. This difference is evident right from the first session.

Because life coaches are not healthcare professionals, patients are not usually asked about their health history, unless their stated goal is to lose weight. However, they may be asked to fill out one or more questionnaires that request information about their background, aspirations and challenges. The life coach and client spend a little time getting to know each other. However, unlike with therapy, they may discuss specific details of the client’s life during the first session.

Clients can expect to be asked questions about their current life situation and the direction they would like their life to go. For instance, many clients go to life coaches when they find themselves dissatisfied with their job or career path. Life coaches help clients identify their professional goals and develop strategies for reaching them.

Clients may have difficulties with issues such as time management, motivation, productivity or work-life balance. Just as a psychologist can help patients develop coping skills for issues like anxiety, life coaching can help clients develop strategies and self-improvement skills for overcoming the obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals.

Comparing the Coach–Client and Therapist–Client Relationship

The mental health therapist–patient relationship tends to be a long-term one. It takes time for a therapist to build a rapport with a patient and to explore the innermost workings of their conscious and subconscious mind. Some patients may work with a mental health therapist for many years — perhaps for most of their lives.

A life coach may have a few clients who return periodically for additional coaching sessions. However, the majority of their clientele works with them on a short-term basis. Typically, a life coach works with the same client for as long as it takes that person to reach their objectives or to make significant progress toward them.

Differences in Reimbursement Models

Because a mental health therapist or psychologist diagnoses and treats mental health disorders, their services are often covered by a patient’s health insurance plan. This means that these mental health professionals must go through the often lengthy process of becoming an authorized provider for an insurance network. Then, for each covered service provided, they must complete the insurance claims process in order to receive payment.

A life coach is not a healthcare professional, and they do not diagnose or treat disorders; because of this, their services are not covered by insurance plans. Clients are required to pay for services as they are rendered, and life coaches do not work with insurance claims.

Differences in Academic Requirements and Professional Credentials

To be legally able to practice, mental health therapists and psychologists must meet their state’s academic and professional licensure requirements. For instance, an aspiring psychologist is typically required to earn a doctoral degree, which involves years of studying and conducting original research. They must then pass a licensing exam before they can legally practice.

By contrast, there are no strict requirements for individuals who aspire to become life coaches. However, it is typical for a life coach to have at least a bachelor’s degree and a life-coaching-specific credential. These allow life coaches to establish their expertise and professional reputation. 

Pathways for Becoming a Life Coach or Psychologist

Students who are interested in becoming a psychologist can expect long years of schooling. The majority of psychologists must first earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, followed by a doctoral degree. Earning a doctoral degree in psychology can take four to seven years and requires the completion of original research and a dissertation.

After successfully earning a PhD, an aspiring psychologist must then obtain licensure in the state in which they plan to practice. They may also choose to obtain a specialty certification in a particular area of psychology, such as neuropsychology.

The process of becoming a life coach is much shorter and is largely unregulated. An aspiring life coach should earn at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably in an area such as psychology or mental health counseling. However, no doctoral degree is required, and life coaches do not need to earn a master’s degree unless they wish to do so.

Instead, many aspiring life coaches choose to earn a graduate-level life coaching certificate. A certificate program that focuses on life coaching gives students the tools they need to either establish their own practices or work within an established coaching practice. After earning a graduate certificate, life coaches may choose to further enhance their professional credentials and reputation with a certification.

Can a Life Coach Specialize in a Particular Area?

Just as mental health therapists may specialize in treating a certain set of mental health disorders, life coaches can specialize in one or more areas. One of the most common is executive life coaching, also known as leadership life coaching. These professionals work within organizations to coach executives and managers as well as promising individuals who may ascend to the executive level.

Other life coaching specialties include the following:

  • Relationship coaching
  • Health coaching (e.g., weight loss)
  • Wellness coaching (integrates mind, body and spirit)
  • Career development coaching (for employees and entrepreneurs at all levels)
  • Financial coaching
  • Parental coaching
  • Military and law enforcement coaching

What to Expect from a Life Coach Certificate Program

A graduate-level life coach certificate program is an ideal option for students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology or counseling and wish further focus their career path. This type of program builds upon the student’s existing knowledge base, instilling life coaching competencies such as conducting assessments, applying coaching strategies and using advanced cognitive theories.

The curriculum varies from one program to the next. In general, however, you may expect to study specific topics such as the following:

  • Selecting a life coaching niche and developing a professional coaching plan
  • Using and interpreting client assessments
  • Coaching individuals using various models and techniques
  • Conducting executive coaching within an organizational setting

In addition, you can expect to explore the ethical principles and professional standards applicable to life coaching.

Do You Need a Life Coach Certification?

Life coaching is an unregulated industry, so there are no strict requirements for this career path. However, mental health clinics and other employers of life coaches may require or prefer that job candidates hold a life coaching certification in addition to an academic credential, such as a graduate-level life coach certificate. If you intend to open your own practice, earning a certification can help you to attract clients because doing so demonstrates your expertise and establishes your professional brand.

A number of professional organizations offer life coach certification programs. Some require extensive coursework, while others offer a quicker route to certification. A few of your certification options are as follows:

  • Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC) – Certified Professional Coach (CPC) or Energy Leadership™ Index Master Practitioner (ELI-MP)
  • International Coaching Federation (ICF) – Associate Certified Coach (ACC), Professional Certified Coach (PCC) or Master Certified Coach (MCC)
  • Transformation Academy – Life Purpose Life Coach Certification

Some certification programs offer a specific focus, such as the health-focused life coaching credential offered by the Health Coach Institute. Regardless of which certification option you choose, the prior work you will have performed in your graduate-level certificate program will help you succeed.

If you aspire to help others achieve their dreams, then you can acquire a firm academic foundation for success at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Graduate Certificate of Completion in Life Coaching program. It requires just four eight-week courses for completion, and it will empower you to develop in-demand life coaching skills.

In addition, GCU offers a number of undergraduate and graduate psychology programs for aspiring therapists. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to find an academic program that fits your career goals.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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